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members of Kurdish security forces accompany Albanians who were detained at the al-Hol camp for displaced families accused of being related to IS fighters members of Kurdish security forces accompany Albanians who were detained at the al-Hol camp for displaced families accused of being related to IS fighters  (AFP or licensors)

Albania repatriates Islamic State women, children despite controversy

A group of women and children who were the families of Albanian nationals who joined Islamic extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq have returned to their homeland. Their arrival Sunday comes amid a debate in several other countries in Europe on what to do with fighters and supporters of groups such as the Islamic State.

By Stefan J. Bos

After a long wait, five Albanian women and 14 children arrived in Albania from Syria's notorious Al Hol camp.

The women had joined Islamic extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Flying from Lebanon, they were accompanied by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Interior Minister Bledi Cuci.In a statement, Rama called it "a very positive event" and pledged that in his words, "We shall not stop here."

He made clear that the 19 women and children will be taken to a shelter in the western port city of Durres. There, police and social experts are making medical and psychological examinations. That is to be followed by a quarantine period, after which some may be allowed to rejoin their families.

Rama did not reveal whether the women would be prosecuted for possible war crimes and other atrocities. Sunday's transportation of the women and children was the third effort to repatriate Albanians from the war-torn territories in Syria. In October last year, five Albanians were repatriated, while a child returned to the country a year earlier.

Authorities believe a few hundred Albanian men joined the Islamic State and other groups fighting in Syria and Iraq in the early 2010s. Many were killed, and their wives and children are stuck in Syrian camps.

Europe watching

The Albanian case is watched by other European nations, such as the Netherlands, which is repatriating some women and children, despite criticism from several legislators.

One of the Dutch women held by Kurdish forces in Syria is Islamic State bride Hafidi. She was in tears when speaking in her tent recently about her hopes for a better future. "Me, if I go to prison, I take the consequences for what I did. But for my children, it is no life here in the camp, almost two years not. I am crying."

She said what she did "was stupid." But Haifida declined to condemn Islamic State, citing security concerns. Repatriating her and others remains controversial, with critical European legislators fearing they could undermine security in Europe, where punishments may be more lenient than in the Middle East.

However, several European governments oppose trials in the Middle East as especially former Islamic State group supporters, including
women may face the death penalty there.

After the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, many Europeans joined Islamic State. As a result, the Islamic State group controlled 88,000 square kilometers (34,000 square miles) of land stretching across Syria and Iraq at its height.

But after they were declared territorially defeated in the region in March 2019, mothers and children were moved to camps and thousands of others displaced. Concerned about security risks and a political backlash, some European governments are reluctant to repatriate all their citizens from the camps despite appeals from rights groups.

Listen to the report by Stefan Bos
01 August 2021, 16:05